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Blowing Smoke: Satellites Crucial in Fire Detection

13 May 2017, 4:42 am

Fires, whether naturally occurring or man-made, have substantial impacts on both the landscape and air quality. Fortunately, satellites can detect and monitor fires large and small, and provide data on a range of factors, including location, duration, size, temperature and intensity.

A large portion of the Southeast (an area including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina) is experiencing drought conditions that, based on data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, range from mild to severe, with areas of extreme drought.  The Florida Forest Service has reported that, as of May 8, 2017, there are more than 120 active fires in the state. Consequently, the need to keep an eye on new and existing fires is paramount. Fortunately, satellites like GOES-16 and Suomi NPP are in orbit.

Beyond scorching vast tracts of land, fires can destroy wildlife habitat and valuable resources, and release aerosols and gases into the atmosphere. In addition, smoke from large fires can drift into populated areas, posing a threat to people with respiratory ailments.

Unlike ground-based observation tools, which can yield incomplete information about fires, satellites can detect and monitor fires large and small, and provide data on a range of factors, including location, duration, size, temperature and intensity. Further, satellites can track blazes in near real time, provide data for air quality models and help distinguish the air-quality impact of fires versus those from other sources of pollution.

How Do Satellites Detect Fires from Space?

NOAA satellites, such as the recently-launched GOES-16, can “see” fires by detecting both the light given off by their flames and the way smoke and other airborne particles absorb or scatter sunlight. In fact, 8 of the 16 spectral bands offered by GOES-16’s Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the satellite’s main instrument, can be used to detect smoke, nighttime fires, hot spots, and burn scars (see chart).

For example, take a look at the GOES-16 geocolor imagery (above) captured on May 7, 2017. It shows smoke plumes from several fires burning in the southeastern United States, including the West Mims Fire, which began burning in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on April 6.  As of May 12, 2017, the federal government’s InciWeb website reported the fire was 148,000 acres and only 16 percent contained. Moreover, full containment of the fire is not expected for months.

GOES-16 is not the only NOAA satellite that can detect fires and smoke. The Joint Polar Satellite System’s Suomi NPP satellite, which circumnavigates the globe twice a day, can also spot blazes and plumes of smoke from its orbit 540 miles above Earth. Suomi NPP’s imager, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), offers 22 channels, and imagery from several of them can be combined to produce true-color images of the Earth used to monitor fire, smoke, and more.

For more information about GOES-16’s ability to detect and montior fire on the landscape, visit the website.

To see more imagery of fire from GOES-16 and Suomi NPP, visit the GOES-16 image gallery and the web page of the NOAA Visualization Laboratory (search using the term “fire).

Courtesy: NESDIS,

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